There aren't many people who can kill a buzz as beautifully as the Cure's Robert Smith. Looking, as always, like the woe-is-me twin of the film ghoul Beetlejuice, the iconic British mope-popper used his jangly melodies and goth-deep delivery to chase away half of the some 60,000 hard-partiers who engulfed RFK Stadium on Saturday for the HFStival, the annual alt-rock endurance test hosted by local radio station WHFS-FM (99.1).
It was just as well. Even after sundown, Haiti-appropriate heat punished the half-naked high-schoolers and collegians, many of whom had started at 10 a.m. and continued to unleash sexy-violent energy through sets by such get-'em-nutty acts as Jay-Z, P.O.D. and the Offspring, who finished up their punk-pop set at 9. But then, with the temps still stubbornly in the 90s , closing act the Cure arrived -- just in time, too.
In the past decade, the HFStival has evolved from a modest collection of offbeat acts into a nationally recognized bacchanalia, this year crammed with 36 musical offerings spread out over three stages and a techno hideaway called the Buzz Tent. Humble beer stands now do battle with top-shelf giant Bacardi rum, which showed up with a mechanical bull and half-naked girls on trampolines, in the manner of Comedy Central's "The Man Show." Funnel-cake vendors are now flanked by body-piercing stations and thong merchants, where the eye-patch-size panties feature parentally petrifying messages. (The best Mom and Dad can hope for is that their li'l miss is wearing the "Don't Even Go There" undies. Sorry.)
Although music seems to be an afterthought now, there was plenty of good stuff to be heard. In a parking lot on one side of the stadium, the Locals Stage -- right by the Ferris wheel and the hurl-inducing pirate ship -- featured homegrowns the Washington Social Club and Jimmie's Chicken Shack, both of which drew sizable crowds for their high-octane avant-punk sets. The steaming blacktop in this midway of mayhem made the sweltering clime seem that much more oppressive, but some faithful came prepared.
"I'm sure it's a lot cooler under here than it is out in the sun," said 19-year-old Chris Shamblin, who strutted the grounds in a giant floppy sombrero. "A couple of my friends are off getting sick, but I'm cool."
In fact, the only thing bothering the White Marsh, Md., resident was that his headgear was too popular. "Yep," he sighed after two women tried to snatch it from his head, "lotta people asking about the hat."
On the stadium's other side, the Street Stage showed off up-and-coming national artists, many of whom, not having to deal with the mumbly acoustics inside the big bowl, put on the most ear-pleasing performances of the day. Mixing metal, pop and rockabilly, the Living End was a Stray Cats for the body-slam set. And as the rare female performer at the fest, Karen O of the Blondie-meets-Siouxsie Yeah Yeah Yeahs put on the most talked-about performance. In a mini-dress and thigh-high fishnets, the frontwoman cooed out the chorus to current hit "Maps" ("They don't love you like I love you"), then chomped on the microphone and let out a guttural howl.
Because sitting in the stands is sooo lame, most of the crowd inside the stadium swarmed the field, pushing up skin-on-skin to the Main Stage. Swirling eddies of anger started for stoner rappers Cypress Hill and veritable oldies act the Violent Femmes, who played the downright appropriate "Blister in the Sun." But those eddies became mosh lakes for sets by pop-punkers New Found Glory and nu-metalists P.O.D., who are a lot like Rage Against the Machine but with, you know, more rage.
Good Samaritan Jay-Z -- backed by two turntables and special guest MC Memphis Bleek -- finally gave the crowd something nice to do, as he had everyone swaying to "Hard Knock Life," "Big Pimpin' " and "Izzo (HOVA)." Getting the loudest applause of the day, Jigga free-flowed a cappella for close to a breathless minute, grinning at his watch the whole time.
The Offspring, led by likable lead singer Dexter Holland, proved you can sing along and beat the heck out of each other at the same time. As the mosh pits doled out the day's final batch of bruises, the merry punksters chugged out hooky arena-rockers "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," "Self Esteem" and new smash "Hit That."
But the crowd came to a startling standstill -- that is, those who weren't already zombie-walking toward the exits -- when the recently reunited Cure front-loaded a 70-minute set with gloomy soundscapes, including exquisite downer "The End of the World," from an upcoming album. The now slightly pudgy and still very pale 45-year-old Smith -- his hair a Broom Hilda tangle, his eyes raccoon black, his lips cherry red -- still has that voice that can go low with sadness and soar high with longing, but he was a curious headliner indeed.
Even when he dusted off the guitar-prickly classics "Just Like Heaven" and "Inbetween Days," which features not one but two pop-perfect melodies, the crowd barely mustered modest applause. Perhaps that's because his die-hard lonely hearts were off weeping. Or maybe most of the audience wasn't alive when his '80s tunes helped make WHFS a broadcasting powerhouse. Whatever the case, for those still around for the bouncy encore "Boys Don't Cry," Smith rewarded the most durable festival-goers with a rare treat: a big, silly smile.